East Africa’s leading coffee trading, roasting and agronomy company, Dormans Group is celebrating 70 years of growth, success and impact on Kenya and the region’s economy.  Food Business Africa magazine had a discussion with Rozy Rana, who leads the Group’s coffee roasting business, Dormans Coffee, to highlight the company’s history and its recent investment in a new facility near Nairobi, Kenya.

As one of the most important crops in the region’s food and agriculture industries, coffee reigned supreme as Kenya’s leading foreign exchange earner after independence. While that ranking has gradually dropped to 4th place, the coffee sector continues to employ millions of people directly and indirectly.

The history of coffee in East Africa would be incomplete without the mention of Dormans, the region’s leading player since 1950. Pioneers Charles and Ellen Dorman set up trading operations and, by establishing Kenya’s first coffee roastery, introduced Kenyans to the unique and wonderful world of coffee drinking.

As they celebrate their ‘milestone’ 70th anniversary, we reminisce about the stories and the strides that have dotted the Dormans journey since its founding.  

Today, the Dormans Group of companies has trading, milling and agronomy operations in Kenya, Tanzania & Rwanda. The roasting plant has been modernized and the company has refreshed its brand image.

The company’s new facility just outside Nairobi, Kenya houses the storage, processing, training and the firm’s Headquarter and trading room

According to Rozy Rana, the Managing Director of Dormans Coffee Ltd, Mrs. Dorman set up the roastery in fulfillment of her desire to enable Kenyans to drink the wonderful beverage they were producing.  She also developed a wide range of coffee blends to meet diverse taste preferences. The investment in the roastery was subsidized by export operations. Dormans Coffee Ltd is the roasting arm of the Dormans Group, and Rozy Rana oversees the day-to-day operations of the enterprise.  

Promoting domestic consumption in coffee-producing countries is often cited as a measure for reducing their dependence on overseas markets.  The push towards local value addition has received top priority from the government. When we had a discussion with Rozy Rana, she stated as follows:

“There is a misconception that local consumption of coffee has increased exponentially. There has been uptake, but only about 5% of the coffee produced in Kenya is consumed locally. The rest is exported in its green form to importers who roast, blend and brand the coffee under their own labels.”

Historically, Kenyans drank tea. Coffee was perceived as an elitist product, which is why for a long time it was an ‘export only’ commodity. “It takes time to build or change a culture. We have introduced many initiatives over the years to boost local consumption of coffee.  We are happy to see greater appreciation for coffee nowadays. More people are investing in the setting up of coffee shops and employing trained Baristas. So we are optimistic that local consumption will continue to grow. We still have a long way to go and increasing local demand and consumption remains an uphill task.”

Among the roaster’s initiatives towards increasing local consumption is Dorman’s creative mix of coffee blends which are available in leading supermarkets and have gained popularity with local coffee buffs.  “We are anxiously looking forward to the day when ‘Dormans’ will be synonymous with ‘Africa’s best coffee’!

The company showcases and educates consumers on the right way to make coffee. This service is very popular with hotels, restaurants and coffee-shop chains. Dormans has supported the growth of coffee sales in these institutions. “I can give you the best ground coffee, but if you don’t know how to make it, you could have a disappointing experience.  With coffee, customers want more than just a good product.  We help these businesses to offer their customers a delightful coffee experience.”

Many firsts to boost consumption

In 2002, Dormans established Africa’s first Barista training school, The Nairobi School of Coffee, where prospective baristas are taught the art of coffee making. The School has connected many of the graduates to the company’s hospitality clients, thereby contributing to the employment of thousands of youth over the years. The School’s certificate is well sought-after by employers in the region and in the Middle East who are seeking to recruit qualified baristas. 

In 2003, Dormans pioneered the annual Kenya National Barista Championships. The event has helped enhance awareness of the barista as a professional coffee maker. The winners compete at the World Barista Championships, an event organized by the Specialty Coffee Association.

The company’s Barista training school is an important contributor to the HORECA industry in Kenya and the region as it trains equips young people with the right skills to fill the rising need for Baristas in the region.

Dormans also started its own chain of coffee shops in 2004. The venture was sold in 2013 to a partner to enable them focus on the core business. In 2005, it introduced ‘Coffee on the Go’, a mobile coffee cart that serves delightful coffee at functions and events across the country, again a first in the region. 

History and price are not the only challenges faced by the company in their quest to grow local consumption. Rozy reveals there are many more.

“To name a few – first, there is a poor payment culture by local supermarkets which leads to increased financing costs. We have to wait for over 60 days for our payments. We also lost a lot of money supporting local supermarket chains like Nakumatt and Uchumi, which collapsed and defaulted on their payments.

Secondly, there is limited awareness of what constitutes good quality. Low barriers to entry and poor regulation have resulted in new players with no coffee expertise entering the market and spreading inaccurate information on what constitutes good coffee. For instance, newcomers have told customers that the blackberry flavor in Kenya coffee is not good for them. Others have told consumers that the darker the coffee is, the more flavorful it is. These are myths.

Kenyan coffee is renowned for its blackberry/citrus flavor.  It is a unique taste for which global consumers pay a premium. Additionally, judging the coffee by color alone would be foolhardy. Taste is subjective; however, it is through drinking a brew made from a medium roast profile that you can experience the nuances, aroma and fine characteristics of the coffee in the drink. Dark roasts are best for strong full-bodied coffee and espresso-based drinks.”

The roasting step is an important part of the process, with each product variety having specific taste profiles

When asked what has made the Dormans brand popular amongst households in Kenya, Rozy replied, “Over the years we have earned the trust of our consumers. I believe it has to do with the meticulous attention we invest in giving value to the customer, and ensuring consistency in the quality of the product.  

Once a customer likes a product, maintaining consistency becomes very important. We roast and pack coffee every day at our factory, and there are a number of quality checks along the way.  We have experts who analyze the green beans and the roast profile, and certified tasters, known as liquorers, who taste every batch that is roasted against the agreed bench marks for the blend.  It is quite an elaborate process.” 

So hard work and knowledge of coffee are indeed big factors that have contributed to the Dormans success story, but Rozy adds that, “The cornerstone is the passion our teams have for coffee.  Coffee is in the company’s lifeblood. It was probably inherited from Mrs. Dorman. While I never met her personally, I have been told that she was popularly known as the ‘Grand Dame of Coffee’ because of her commitment to and passion for the beverage.  Certainly when I joined, the passion was already instilled in the culture. It probably explains why we have very little turnover in staff.

Take for instance our roasters – some of them have been with us for over 20 years. Many of our Baristas who support the hospitality sector have been with the company for a similar period.  When I joined the Company at a tender age, my knowledge of coffee was very limited. It was a steep learning curve to start with, but before long the passion that was inherent in the teams infected me. That passion is so contagious that 28 years later, I still love what I do.”

The 70th anniversary is a truly befitting time to celebrate the decades of hard work by the company’s founders, managers and employees – past and present. “It would be remiss of me not to mention our Chairman, Jeremy Block, who has guided the vision of the company for more than 30 years. His passion and focus have enabled the company to expand aggressively, pro-actively taking advantage of new opportunities over the years.”

New site, new horizons

To continue with its quest to meet changing market demand for its roasted coffee products and to expand the scope of its activities, Dormans moved its entire operation in 2017 to Tatu City, a new development about 30 kilometres from the centre of Nairobi that has attracted a large number of local, regional and multinational manufacturing, logistics and housing firms. 

In addition to coffee storage, processing, packaging, end-product stores, and laboratories for in-process and end product analysis, the facility hosts the company’s headquarters, with a large office block, a barista training school, and a coffee grading and tasting laboratory. The office block has a trading floor where the company’s trading staff can follow, in real time, the progress of the New York coffee exchange.  

The Group’s operations were previously spread over different locations. “Moving to this site has been a huge and exciting step,” Rozy exclaims confidently. “It has served two key purposes: getting all our staff under one roof, and investing in technology that provides greater quality assurance to our customers. We have modernized our processes, enhanced our efficiencies with a more robust food safety management system, and undertaken a complete refreshment of the Dormans brand. Our new packs proudly hold their own on the shelves in the global market place. Our standards match those of sophisticated roasters in other parts of world.” 

Safety at the heart of the business

According to Rozy, the company has taken its lead in the coffee industry many notches higher by implementing food safety and quality management systems that separate it from its peers.  “Safety and the quality and consistency of our products are the most critical considerations in our business. We were the first coffee plant in East Africa to be certified in the year 2007 with ISO 22000:2005; before that, we were the only coffee plan regionally with HACCP certification. 

In 2008 we upgraded to FSSC 22000, one of the most respected global sets of food safety standards. As these standards are site-specific, it was a priority to ensure the certification was updated as soon as we settled into the new site.”  

“The move to the new site has renewed the vigour and the capability of the team to deliver the best tasting coffee that meets and surpasses the set quality and food safety parameters,” the MD divulges. “It has significantly enhanced the efficiencies in the flow of processes.” 

“While we have internal and external audits for our certifications, some client commissioned audits and checks are even more rigid than those of the certification bodies. We are happy to partner with customers who take food safety very seriously because this helps us to consistently remain on top of the game.”

Products and markets

The company has a leading position in Kenya for a number of coffee products including roast and ground coffee, instant coffee, coffee capsules, premixes, syrups and premium tea. Through their ever-fresh Dormans brand, the company distributes its products to hotels, restaurants, coffee shop chains, supermarkets and retailers in Kenya and regionally. 

Dormans coffee is available in various options for the discerning consumer. Decaffeinated varieties are also available

Roasted and ground coffee account for the bulk of the company’s production and sales. The company has developed special blends that match the specific preferences of their consumers. From the intense and bold Dormans Espresso, to the rich and traditional Dormans Arabica, to the bright and complex Dormans AA Blue Mountain, the company has 16 varieties of blends. Within this category, they also have Dormans Decaf, a smooth and mild decaffeinated coffee variant for those who prefer their beverage without the caffeine. 

The company’s instant coffee brands are available in granulated, fine and decaffeinated options in packages of 250g, 100g and 50g, plus in single-serve 2g sticks. The recently introduced coffee capsules range include Espresso, Suprema, Kilimanjaro and Decaf options, with each pack of 125g containing 25 capsules. The company’s tea product line is also available in capsule format.

A recent and already popular innovation is the range of 3-in-1 coffee premixes. There are two variants of premixes – the classic and the Irish coffee option; 

Dormans has introduced a range of flavoured syrups, which include popular variants like vanilla, coconut and lime, as well as exotic variants like grenadine, blue curacao, peppermint, caramel and hazelnut.

Munyinyi Kiiru, the company’s new product development manager explains that with young Millennials driving food consumption, the new product development team redirected its focus to meet the budding needs of this key demographic. “Adding new, interesting flavour notes to regular drinks is a concept that the Millennial consumer appreciates.

Our flavoured syrups add that extra punch so that these young, experimental consumers can add individuality to their drinks.” He further explains that the introduction of the coffee and tea capsules and the coffee mixes seek to meet consumer expectations for convenient products that are quick and easy to use and pleasant to the palate. 

Technology at the core

“Coffee is both an art and a science,” states Rozy. “Our roasters are from Probat Werke – the leading German manufacturer of drum roasting machines. These enable us to create all kinds of roast profiles, even for the most specialized applications. Though we have very sophisticated equipment, it is critical for the Master Roaster to have the right skills to supervise the roasting process.  The Master Roaster will listen for the characteristic ‘crack’ that informs him on how close the coffee is to reaching the required roast profile.

Our roast profiles are quite specific, and often a few seconds can make a big difference to the taste of the final drink. I cannot overstate the importance of the Master Roaster’s expertise in dropping the coffee from the roaster at just the right time.  This important combination of skill and state-of-the-art technology is necessary to mitigate any risks to quality.”

Before the coffee is received for processing, each batch is tested at the company’s laboratory facility to ensure only coffee that meets the requirement is brought into the plant

Rozy reveals that, on moving to the new site, the company was able to install a Quad-Pack line enabling the launch of modern and visually appealing packs. The coffee is filled into protective foil bags, flushed with nitrogen and a one way freshness valve is fitted onto the pack before it is sealed. The nitrogen and the one way valve serve very important roles.  

Nitrogen displaces oxygen and is used in preserving the freshness of packaged food products. The one way valve enables gasses produced by the roasted coffee to escape but blocks the entry of air and moisture, thereby locking in the flavor and aroma and enhancing the shelf life of the pack.

“Our investment in talent and technology helps to keep us competitive, sustainable and innovative.”

People focused company

“Coffee is an experiential product and our success hinges on our human resource. Our diverse and talented staff is the lifeblood of our business. I am delighted to say that we have the right team to deliver the company’s mandate, which includes the right culture. When we bring new talent into the company, coffee becomes their raison d’etre in no time. It just happens. The passion for coffee is instilled in the corporate culture here at Dormans. That’s the best part about working at Dormans. There is positive energy flowing and we enjoy what we do.

The sensory evaluation team hard at work as they sample the coffee before it goes to the market

Take for instance my production team or even my hospitality team – it doesn’t surprise me to see them together at the canteen over lunch, discussing minute changes to the roast profile or explaining different ways of making coffee to the canteen lady.  Our staff is always willing to train interns, and interns who spend time at the company, ask to return upon completion of their studies.  This has helped us remain at the forefront of innovation because new ideas keep flowing. It’s the corporate culture here!”

Sustainability agenda

The Group is committed to a strong sustainability agenda. “Sustainability is one of our core values and we work closely with several partners. One of our partner companies offers agronomy services to farmers, advising them on best husbandry practices to help improve coffee quality and yields.

Another partner we support annually is Mt. Kenyan Trust.  It is critical to protect and conserve the environment surrounding our wonderful coffee growing areas, and it is no secret that this is under threat. We opted to partner with Mt. Kenya Trust because their central mission is to protect and conserve the environment.”

Since 1992, the company has sponsored an annual coffee quality competition, which rewards farmers who produce the best quality coffee.

Rozy adds that the Dormans ‘Safari’ Coffee Blend was the first Fair Trade certified blend to be sold in the local market, where growers and farmers benefit through premium prices for their coffee. “After all, trade is not only about money but also about people, their families, their livelihoods, and the environment”.

The company continuously engages with its customers to explain the benefit of coffee and improve local consumption

In one of the largest sustainability projects in the food industry, the company partnered with Tatu City by providing 5,700 square metres of roof space to install and commission 2,880 solar modules that produce 1.4 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year from solar energy.

“This ground breaking project reduces carbon dioxide emissions by at least 1 million kilograms per year and not only provide us with a clean source of energy but also insulates the warehouse roofs to help with climate control for the coffee being stored there,” Rozy explains, adding that excess power produced from the plant is sold back to the grid for re-distribution through Tatu City. 

With such a strong sustainability agenda and a growing middle class in the region, Dormans Coffee is set to chart new territory going into the future, despite recent setbacks due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The business has been affected, especially our local roasted sales, but we remain confident about the future. Our focus is on ensuring the safety and welfare of our employees. We also want to do whatever we can to support our customers, especially the hospitality institutions that have been hit hard during this tough time,” she concludes.

This feature appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of Food Business Africa magazine. You can find the magazine and other stories HERE